18. "Art of Healing" Project Saves Artistic Heritage of Wishard

James Glass
Column that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on

Thanks to the efforts of the Wishard Memorial Foundation and several Indianapolis cultural institutions, a collection of murals with great importance to the artistic heritage of the city is being saved and restored. The murals were created in 1914 and 1915 as part of a novel project in which members of the Hoosier Group of painters and young aspiring artists created over 30 murals to provide therapeutic scenes for recovering patients in the former Indianapolis City Hospital, now Wishard Health Services.

In 1914 local businessman Alfred Burdsal bequeathed funds to construct the two Burdsal units at City Hospital, representing the latest designs for the care of patients. St. Margaret's Guild, an organization of volunteer women, raised $200 for the decoration of the new structures and approached the hospital director, T. Victor Keene, who consulted with two young artists, Clifton Wheeler and Wayman Adams. The painters suggested an ambitious project of creating murals throughout each of the Burdsal units. Additional money was raised, and over a dozen artists were enlisted to work on murals and smaller paintings. William Forsyth, an instructor at the John Herron Art Institute and noted member of the Hoosier Group, became director of the project. In the east building's first floor, pioneering African American artist William E. Scott painted "Morning" and "Evening" in the foyer, "The Four Seasons" for the men's ward, "The Pilgrim Fathers" in a side room, and "The Nations of the Earth Coming to the Light" in the sun room. On the second-floor women's ward, Clifton Wheeler painted a series of landscapes showing mountains, woodlands, and fields. On the third floor, devoted to children, he painted engaging scenes in the sun room from Mother Goose rhymes and folk lore: "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Goose Girl," "The Pied Piper of Hamlin," and "Jack and the Bean Stalk." For the children's ward, portraitist Wayman Adams created 25 paintings of children representing all of the ethnic groups then living in Indianapolis. Hoosier Group member Otto Stark painted scenes showing a child's toys coming to life on the walls of the third-floor dining room, while young artist Carl Graf depicted seven scenes from the fairy tale of Cinderella in the corridor leading to the ward. In the reception room, student artist Walter Hixon Isnogle painted figures representing "Music, Literature," and Art." On the top floor of the east building, Forsyth created four large panels showing women in repose in a summer afternoon, children listening to a storyteller, women and children drinking health-giving water, and children playing in water.

In the west Burdsal unit first floor ward, the dean of the Hoosier Group, T.C. Steele, created horizontal landscape paintings entitled "The Four Seasons" and vertical paintings of Brown County landscapes. Hoosier Group colleague J. Ottis Adams painted landscape scenes for the sun room of the first floor, while William Scott created an ambitious cycle of scenes from the life of Christ and the teachings of Christ for the fourth floor. Younger artists Graf, Martinus Andersen, Dorothy Morlan, Francis F. Brown, Emma B. King, and Simon Baus all contributed murals to other sections of the west building.

What happened to this extensive ensemble of early 20th century Indiana painting? Regrettably, much of the collection did not survive. Lack of maintenance after World War II and removal of some murals during remodelings took their tolls, and in 1967, a drastic renovation of the Burdsal units would have destroyed most of the murals. Fortunately, St. Margaret's Guild managed to save approximately 40 panels from the murals out of perhaps 65 originally created and remove them for safe-keeping and repair. By 2002, the Wishard Memorial Foundation realized that the surviving paintings were in poor condition and needed extensive restoration. Under the leadership of board member Anne Emison Wishard, the foundation undertook an ambitious project to increase public awareness of the Wishard mural collection and raise the $1.5 million needed to restore it. The Indiana Historical Society assisted by exhibiting some paintings and co-sponsoring a book about the Burdsal murals. The Indianapolis Museum of Art helped by storing art and restoring some of the work, while the Indiana State Museum stored parts of the collection. The Wishard Memorial Foundation recently received an $80,000 grant from the Efroymson Fund of the Central Indiana Community Foundation to assist in the restoration of the paintings removed in 1967, and Anne Wishard says the foundation also is raising funds to save several deteriorated murals still in the Burdsal units, display the entire collection of surviving art at Wishard, and interpret them to the public.

Hoosier Group Mural in one of Burdsal Units, Wishard Hospital. James Glass 2014

Hoosier Group Mural in one of Burdsal Units, Wishard Hospital. James Glass 2014

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